T5By Krael In a far corner of the room - sublevel 8 - a thick panel of glass broke themonotony of the vented, steel walls. Behind this glass was a haze of red light.
Bathed in the sterile crimson glow was a sparse habitat, consisting chiefly ofsand and a dry form of grass. Tucked away just beyond the dim lights was a smallcage-like structure. Its walls were made up of tightly inter-linked steel mesh.
The roof was a thicker, solid steel device, which curved down over the top halfof the enclosure. A small, square opening had been allowed in the forward rightcorner of the structure, marked by a smooth steel semi-circle stretching out onthe sand before it.
Within the small cage-like building was a quiet and timid creature. Its bodywas primarily free of hair, save for a tangled, dark mass perched upon its head.
On the floor, a few places away, was a small gathered mass of the dry grass thatgrew wild in patches throughout the small habitat. It was here the creature madeits bed. The grass sheltered its bare skin from the cold steel floor. In therear, right corner of the building were two bowls. Both were made identically ofthe same smooth steel which composed most of the enclosure. Positioned at anangle above each of the bowls was a hollow glass tube, which ran in from thewall. To each side of the mouth of each tube was a red button. To press thebutton on one side would bring water. To press the button to the other sidewould bring food. The creature had been quick in its study of the process.
The inside of the enclosure stayed dark, save for a very dim residue of thedark red light which flooded the sandy area a short distance beyond thecreatures home. The creature did not enjoy that area. The light hurt its eyes.
Once a day, the creature was driven from its beloved darkness into thisuncomfortable environment. Long ago, the pain would come from the floor. Thepain would only stop when the creature had fled the structure. Again, thecreature was a quick study. It began to anticipate. After much trial and error,it had come to predict when the pain would come. Now, at the same time everyday, the creature could be observed leaving the habitat; its eyes squinteduncomfortably, as it ventured into the red glow.
The creature feared the hands. When the pain had first come, the creature hadnot fled far from its home. It was confused and scared, but the light botheredit more. But the hands had come. Their size and quick movement frightened thecreature. When the pain came, the hands soon followed. The creature disliked thelight. It feared the hands more.
***"Terrarium 5.""Specimen exhibits no notable change in habit.""Food consumption?""Steady.""Water consumption?""Steady.
"Health?""Results of the most recent scan indicate no cellular breakdown. Growthremains at zero increase.""When was last scan?""Fifty-six hours ago.""Proceed."***At precisely sixteen-hundred hours, a light electric current was delivered tothe floor of the housing-cell in Terrarium 5. As had been observed for overthree months now, the specimen had effectively removed itself from the cellminutes before the shock was sent. In a few more weeks, the current would bediscontinued; confidence having been reached as to the specimen's change inhabit.
Also noted was the specimen's continued aversion to the intrusion of handlersinto the environment. The handlers' only task within the Terrarium was thereplacement of the food and water receptacles inside the housing-cell. Despitethe lack of conscious contact between the specimen and the handlers, the formermaintained a noted fear response in relation to the handlers. This wasencouraging. The survival instinct was strong.
Terrarium 5 was one of eighteen other related specimens housed on sublevel 8.
Of course, the specimens were not aware of this. The scientists and technicianson sublevels 1 - 7 were also unaware, just as sublevel 8was unaware ofactivities in outside sectors. Their employer preferred to keep things this way,and provided quite enough money and other incentives to ensure mutualcooperation. The identity of this employer was also a matter of non-inquiredmystery. Many operatives on sublevel 8 had their varying lists of names andrumors, but these were nothing more than casual talkâ€¦of less importance than anightly baseball game.
***"Tough night?"Ned Stallworth stared up blankly from his terminal.
"You look rough Ned. Putting in more overtime this week?""Not reallyâ€¦" Ned muttered noncommittally, managing to place a name to theface. "Just another night trying to catch up with the American dream." The facesmiled broadly. "How are the wife and kids Dave?"Ned resisted the temptation to return his eyes to his work as Dave staggeredto the conclusion of his work-place small-talk ritual. He never retainedanything of value from these exchanges; he had serious doubts that Dave dideither. These mindless encounters were a necessary evil though he had learned.
Try and play the rebel and walk away from them, and you draw suspicion. Thoughthis once seemed glamorous to his young mind, he had quickly sobered to theconsequences. Suspicion brought rumors. Rumors brought attention. Attentionbrought trouble. Trouble could cost you. In Ned's position, trouble wassomething he absolutely could not afford.
He smiled and nodded in parting as Dave finished his dialogue and wandered offin search of another victim.
"Whoever invented coffee breaks should be shotâ€¦" Ned muttered, returning tohis work.
He punched a key and a grid of numbers appeared. Ned only had to glance atthe screen briefly to deduce that all the terrarium environments were stablewith minimal fluctuation in conditions. He brought up another screen.
"What a life you must leadâ€¦" he muttered, scanning over the data. "Stillrunning from the techs tooâ€¦"Of all the specimens observed and recorded, Terrarium 5 held the only one toexhibit a human-like intelligence. Because of this, he was of greatest interestto Ned, who collected and reported on technical data and behavioral patternsrecorded from the various habitats. Personally, Ned failed to see a reason forthese particular experiments, but as in most things, his opinions were of littleconsequence. The bosses had their reasons, and made it quite worth Ned's whileto leave things at that.
Ned punched another key, and the most recent photo of Terrarium 5's soleresident materialized. He looked apprehensive as usual. His hair had begun toweigh from the curls, beginning to drift down his shoulders. His skin wascleanâ€¦another aberration from his fellow experiments. One of the unique habitsT5 had developed was using his supply of water to clean his skin. The reportshad observed this behavior developing into a timely pattern. The specimen's wasnow up to three "baths" a dayâ€¦usually around the same time.
Ned's overheads had made T5 nearly their sole interest in his weekly briefingsessions. All of the specimens carried nearly identical characteristics, withsome variances in the development process. Ned was forbidden access to exactlywhat these variances and processes where. His job was to sort and report; inessence, a paper-hound. From what he did have access to though, he did know thatT5 was progressing at a much more rapid rate than the others, who seemed lessadvanced in some cases than many types of mollusk. He also knew that T5 hatedany bright lights. Even the dim red that filled the better half of the terrariumseemed to cause himdiscomfort.
"All gifts come with a price, young grasshopperâ€¦" Ned muttered, letting hisattention drift momentarily from his work.
As usual, his thoughts turned toward Katherine. As usual, these thoughts weretinged with a strange mix of longing and annoyance. He wondered if his overheadsknew about her. He wondered if it mattered. Katherine had teasingly avoided anykind of significant tie to him. She seemed to exist in his life merely toconfuse him.
Of course, the bosses discouraged romantic involvement in their employees. Morethan one had been wiped when their relationships became too serious. No harmcame to them as far as he knew; all employees were subjected to some form ofhypnotic suggestion upon hiring. As Ned understood it, their memories relatingto work were erased at this time. Some new suggestion was planted, and theformer employee was given some safe civilian job through resources the bossespossessed.
Ned was a long way from any desires to give up his comfortable lifestyle.
There were more than adequate compensations for his loneliness in his pay. Asluck would have it, his paths had crossed with the antithesis to his stability.
He had first met Katherine at a hotel lounge he frequented. It was a relaxedplace. Not the sort of place you went looking for sex or romance. Most nights,Ned hardly saw a woman in the place. It was full of people like him. Guys tooinvolved with their own lives to wander the neon strip, yet not quite too farremoved from life outside to enjoy a quiet drink and some soft jazz.
She was beautiful. Her entrance turned nearly every self-involved male facein the placeâ€¦including his. She was alone, which for a woman of her looks was initself enough to draw Ned's interest. He forgot now what lame opener he hadused, but she had bitten. They had spent the evening discussing her writingcareer. She had published a few children books, and was trying to break into theadult fiction market. In the interim, she kept an accounting job to pay thebills.
From that first night, Ned was enthralled with her. Unfortunately, she hadregarded him as little more than a friend. That is, until one drunken night ather low-rent downtown apartment, he had revealed his line of work. It had allspiraled down from there. Now, she tormented him with smiles and soft-spokenpromises; the weak male mind revealing all in the face of sexual appeal.
Most curious was her reaction to the terrarium specimens. He had almostthought he would finally land her in bed that night, as excited as she hadbecome. She had later explained a longstanding sexual fantasy centering on tinymen. She supposed it came from her fierce ambitionsâ€¦some strange twist of thefeminist mind. Afterwards, she had let the matterâ€¦and Ned's hopes for theeveningâ€¦drop. This wasn't quite the case though, as Ned would soon discover.
It had been two weeks ago when she had made the suggestion. He had laughed ather. He had called her crazy. He had left in a rage. A week later, he waspondering how to make it happen.
Her idea was for Ned to kidnap one of the specimens for an evening. She sworeshe just wanted to see it, touch itâ€¦nothing strange. She made all sorts oferotic promises to him in exchange. It was a lunatic idea, nevertheless, Ned hadcome up with a possible way to make it happen.
The alarm systems were not a problem. They fell under his domain. He had setthem to turn off that evening, and turn back on just before 5 AM the followingmorning, when everyone returned to work.
Security would not be a problem. Ned often put in overtime on his reports;sometimes it was unavoidable given new findings. His presence late at nightwould not be seen as unusual, and security was not allowed into the lab itself.
It would have to be fast. He would let her have her look, then return thespecimen immediately. Barring any unforeseen difficulties, no one would eversuspect.
Ned glanced back over the data for T5. Despite the specimen's aversion tolight, T5 was the only specimen to react normally to introduce earth-likeatmospheric conditions. Reports had even noted a lack of negative effect whenopening straight building ventilation into T5.
"Look like you're the one, buddy." Ned sighed. He had a few things left to dobefore nightfall.
***"I've got someone I want you to meetâ€¦" Ned proclaimed, as Katherine led himinto her one-bedroom apartment.
"What's this?" Katherine asked, amused, as Ned turned off the room lights.
"He doesn't like lights." Ned grinned sheepishly, producing a small plasticbox.
"Oh myâ€¦" she breathed, as he snapped off the lid.
T5's tiny inhabitant huddled in a corner of the box. His large eyes were widein fear. With a small high-pitched whine, buried his face in his arms, trying tohide from his giant observers.
"Katherine, meet T5." Ned swept his hand in a dramatic gesture. Glancing ather face, he noted with pleasure thehungry look spreading in her eyes.
"Canâ€¦can I hold him?" she asked softly, her eyes never leaving the cage.
"Well, I don't think that's a good ideaâ€¦" Ned said hesitantly. "He usuallyhas to be sedated even for the scientists to get near him.""I see." She glanced up at Ned, a sexy pout on her face.
"Look, I'll let you hold the box, but don't try and touch him. The scientistsare afraid sudden shock may be deadlyâ€¦"She eagerly took the box. For a long moment she stared at T5, that samegreedy expression on her face.
"I'd get out of the country if I were you Neddie." Her voice was amused, butsomething in it sent a sudden shock through his body.
"What do you mean?" he asked nervously.
In answer, Katherine produced a small pistol from behind her back.
"What's this?" Ned tried to laugh. "A joke or something?""Call it a business transaction Neddie." Her smile was predatory. "You walkout of here without giving me any trouble, and I won't have to shoot you.""You wouldn'tâ€¦""Oh, but I would Neddie." She stepped closer to him. "Your boss would thankme for doing the job for him, once the story hits the press.""What story?" Ned felt numb. How could he have been so stupid?"Our government involved in secret, bizarre experiments in secret undergroundlabs. Ah yes, fodder for the tabloids. But not any more! Thanks to NedStallworth - bumbling deskjock - we have evidence!""Whyâ€¦""Because it's worth money Neddie." She laughed. "Oh, not the story. I highlydoubt it will ever print. But it's going to cost your bosses a lot of cash tokeep it that wayâ€¦and they'll have you to thank for that Neddie. How much do youthink your life will be worth then?"Ned merely nodded. If they didn't kill him, they'd wipe his memory back toinfancy and stick him in some mental home on tranquilizers for the rest of hislife.
"I feel I owe you something though, darling." Ned bit back his anger. "So, toshow you I'm not such a bad girl after all, I'm going to do you a favor. I'llgive you two days to disappear before I make my little call to your bosses.""How generous of youâ€¦" Ned hissed.
"I think so." She smiled cheerfully. "Oh Ned, I've been watching you for sometime. You see, the government usually makes sure that their male employees arehappily married before they take them in. They slipped with you. Young,singleâ€¦all that money and no poor silly bimbo to play with." That smug smileagain. "It must have been hard for you Neddie. It was too easy getting into yourconfidence. You suprised even me."Still smiling, she walked around Ned and opened the door.
"Don't worry about your friend here." She reached into the box and pokedteasingly at the terrified little man. "He should be back in his littleunderground lab in no time, and I'll be rich. As for you Neddie, you'd betterget started. I'd suggest one of those war-torn Central American countries. Iunderstand even the government has trouble finding people there. Word of advicenext time Neddie? Keep you head on your shoulders, not in your pants. Cheers!"***And so it was that Ned Stallworth - wiser to the ways of this cruel world -set out towards Guatemala in search of sanctuary from the storm that was surelyto come. Meanwhile, in the small nightly-rental apartment suite that Katherine,AKA Tabitha Martin, AKA Cheryl Allison had checked out for her rendezvous withanother foolish, trusting manâ€¦a tiny figure cowered in the palm of his newestnightmare. He had buried his head in his arms, trying to push away the horribleblinding lights that had suddenly appeared.
"Our Mr. Stallworth wasn't kidding about you and lights was he little man?"She poked softly at her prize, chuckling as he squealed in protest. "Well, don'tworry my little friend. Soon you'll be back in your dark little lab cageâ€¦andI'll be living the good life in some expensive coastal resort town." She lookedher tiny catch over speculatively. "In the meantime, I know a nice and darkplace you'd be just perfect for."***"They still haven't found Stallworth?" the man asked, peering into the smallred-lit terrarium and jotting a few notes down.
"I've heard they think he's in Bolivia." The other man shrugged. "Personally,I say why bother? Stallworth probably so scared for his life, he'll never beseen in this country again." He peered into the terrarium. "Still at it?""Yeah." the other man shook his head. "I don't know what's wrong with thelittle guy. He used to stay out of the lights as much as he could.""Probably a lingering shock. The little guy's been through a lot these pastfew weeks.""They ever find that woman?""Disappeared without a trace. As much money as she got out of this mess,she'll be able to stay that way for awhile.""Well, I'm going to go input morning's observation into the computer. Haveyou seen that new lady they replaced Stallworth with?""Yeah, she's something else. Too bad you and me are both married.""What's her name again?""I think she said it was Katherine. T5 here almost had a coronary when he sawher.""His kidnapper was a womanâ€¦guess he's learned to tell the difference.""Lucky him." End